Live Show Review: Poil Ueda and John Zorn at the FIMAV

FIMAV, photo by Martin Morissette

It is well known that I seldom venture out of the comforts of my abode to seek the fellowship of likeminded individuals in a live music ritual. However, upon seeing the delightful programme that the FIMAV (the French acronym for Victoriaville’s International Contemporary Music Festival) had to offer this year, I was tempted—and later fulfilled these temptations—to journey beyond the borders of my realm and into the unknown. You have to hand it to the organizers of this festival for the awe-striking programme: Poil Ueda (opening the festivities), Ikue Mori, Zoh Amba, Fred Frith, Guy Thouin, Tashi Dorji & Dave Rempis, Lori Freedman, Elliott Sharp, Colin Stetson, Kate Gentile, Alexander Hawkins, and, closing the weekend, a double set of John Zorn (and I’m leaving a lot of names unmentioned).

Due to obligations, I unfortunately had to make heart-wrenching choices as to which artists I were to witness, and I eventually settled on seeing Poil Ueda’s American premiere and John Zorn’s two sets, which were comprised of the Suite for Piano album with Brian Marsella, Jorge Roeder, and Ches Smith, a Simulacrum set with John Medeski, Matt Hollenberg, and Kenny Grohowski, as well as New Masada Quartet: Julian Lage, Jorge Roeder, Kenny Wollesen, and, unmistakably, John Zorn.

Poil Ueda’s night was on Thursday, and I went in with a musical friend of mine (Christian of Contemplator and other projeects). I don’t believe the band played the entirety of their eponymous debut album, but they did play a four-part suite that is to appear on a subsequent opus. And what is there to say about their performance? It quite simply left Christian and me speechless. The Poil trio, joined by Ni’s Benoît Lecomte and Junko Ueda for this very special project, were all absolutely fantastic and reproachless, even enduring the fatigue of their jet lag. Their music is wearisome to listen to on its own because of the frequent tempo changes, the multiple tuplets dotting the sheets, and the complex interplay between each instrument; it is awe-inspiring when beheld in action. I could not spot a flaw in their execution no matter how tremendously exhausting—mentally and physically—and apparently ever-modulating their material was. Guilhem Meier, on percussion, was especially fantastical, being on a completely different plane of existence while keeping the various interconnected and intricated rhythms together. Likewise, Junko’s performance is nothing short of stellar. Although the notes played on her satsuma-biwa are rather sparse, they perfectly add to the capharnaüm of the other instruments, and are expertly played, even in the most tense moments. While playing this instrument, Junko sings in a traditional Japanese style atop the tempestuous musical tapestry that the rest of the band paints, adding words and meanings to the tumultuous river beneath. I cannot stress enough the difficulty of following along with even the simplest of Poil Ueda’s sections, so this aerial vocal style is an amazement beyond all.

At the end of about an hour and a half, I was exhausted and my jaw was dropped. I know little of the arduity of crafting such intricate music with a full band—I indeed participated in an avant-prog project with a similar fondness for rhythmic complications that, even if its live band aspect was culled by the pandemy, is currently being finalizes as a recording—and the little I know is that with increasing difficulty and variables (read: musicians) comes exponential unlikeliness that the project will see the light of day. Thus, it is an improbability that such a band exists, and it should be cherished and loved, and every opportunity to be a witness to this strange phenomenon should be taken and acted upon. Poil Ueda simply played the most mind boggling set I have thus far seen and heard.

Poil Ueda, photo by Martin Morissette

Then, after a few days home, I went back for the closing ceremonies: John Zorn’s New Music for Trios, followed by New Masada Quartet. First off was Suite for Piano, which was released last year on CD (and which I reviewed here). I cannot state how impressive it is to see such masters at their instrument as Marsella, Roeder, and Smith (and also all other musicians mentioned in this review). Suite for Piano takes upon classical musical forms and uproots them in various ways from a definitively jazz approach. The set began quite well, even though Roeder once (only once) let slip a false note, or rather a hesitation, that was noticeable enough, but the rest of his performance more than made up for that little mishap. The three musicians are astonishing in their own rights: Marsella’s mastery of the touches, and Smith’s rhythmic expertise are all inspiring, but Roeder’s set of advanced techniques for the double bass is in a league of its own, as well as his skills for the more traditional techniques of the instrument. At about the midway point of their set, however, a technical difficulty seemed to annoy Marsella to no end. After a few gesticulations while playing and between pieces, it became clear to me and others in the audience that the problem was that his monitor was not functional. At one point, exasperated, he even stormed off scene to dispell the matter with the technical crew. During that time, Smith played an extended drum solo to the delight of the crowd. After a change of speaker during the performance, the issue seemed to be resolved, and the set would finish without further hiccups.

Suite for Piano, Photo by Martin Morissette

Set two was much more brazen by the entrance of the Simulacrum trio: electric guitar, organ, and drums. Even if the acoustics of the venue were great, I wish I had brought, as usual, earplugs since the volume and harshness of the sound was cranked up a lot during that hour or so. I later found out that free earplugs were being offered at the entrance of the festival, but then there was nothing I could do but painfully enjoy the set. And enjoy it I did! During the first piece, there also seemed to be a problem with a monitor, Hollenberg’s this time. Fortunately, it was only a low volume issue and that was easily fixed. Simulacrum played a vast array of pieces despite the limited time available to them, and too soon the show finished!

Simulacrum, photo by Martin Morissette

Finally, it was time for New Masada Quartet. Firstly, however, and quite confusingly also, we all had to quit the venue and get back in line to go… into the same venue once again. This confounding decision is still a mystery to me, and I believe most people went back to their previous seat. Anyway, after a short time, Zorn, Lage, Roeder, and Wollesen step on stage and lose no time to start playing. What sets New Masada Quartet apart from Zorn’s other projects where he acts as the composer is his involvement not only as a musician but as a true band leader and director. With a multitude of hand signs and eye contacts, he conducts the three other players to do exactly what he has in mind, adding an element of improvisation, of interaction, and a sort of musical game on scene. Once again, I want to convey just how impressive all of this is, for the musicians must at all time be alert of the conductor’s gestures as well as their position in the musical piece and what every other bandmate is playing. There were a lot of musical interactions, especially between Zorn and Lage, which were both delightful to see. They played many pieces, some of which came from this year’s Volume 2 album. John Zorn is still as impressive as ever a player, using all the tricks in his book, and all members of the quartet are equally skilled and astounding musicians. Truly, this was a perfect set (after an encore!) to close the FIMAV.

New Masada Quartet, photo by Martin Morissette

So, I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to go to such wonderful performances from overseas and the states in a small town in Québec. All I can say is, if you can manage it, keep your eyes open for next year’s FIMAV, which promises even more amazing performances. Also, stay open and aware of the venues your favourite musicians play around you. If you can, it’s important—for them and also for you—to go support their live performances. See you somewhere!